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Treating Crohn’s Disease With Diet

September 13, 2012 by Michael Greger M.D. in News with 23 Comments

Inflammation has recently emerged as an important player in the development of age-related disability and many of our major chronic diseases including heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and Alzheimer’s disease. Now that laboratory tests such as C-reactive protein have been developed, we can measure the effects different foods and diets have on inflammatory markers.

Most plant-based foods decrease inflammation. Processing destroys the anti-inflammatory effects of some (garlic decreases inflammation but garlic powder does not), but improves these effects in others (tomato juice decreases inflammation but whole tomatoes do not). For a review of which plants have been found to be most anti-inflammatory, check out my 3-min. video Anti-inflammatory Effects of Purple Potatoes.

Do these anti-inflammatory plant foods actually have an impact on inflammatory disease mortality though? In my 2-min. video Fighting Inflammation in a Nut Shell I profile a new study out of Australia, which followed about 2,500 older adults and their diets for 15 years. In that time, about 200 participants died of inflammatory diseases, allowing the scientists to calculate the specific aspect of the survivors’ diets that seemed to help the most. It was nuts! The equivalent of half a walnut a day appeared to cut the risk of dying from inflammatory disease in nearly half. Fish consumption, to their surprise, didn’t seem to help, which may be due to pro-inflammatory industrial pollutants that build up the food chain. This may help explain why most studies done to date on those eating vegetarian or vegan have found lower levels of inflammatory biomarkers in their bodies.

However, just because plant-based diets decrease markers of inflammation doesn’t necessarily mean that plant-based diets can successfully be used to fight inflammatory disease. To find that out, you’ve got to put it to the test. The gold standard for evidence in nutritional science is an interventional trial. You split people into two groups and ask half to go on one diet, half to go on another, and then stand back and see what happens. That’s just what researchers recently did for the  inflammatory bowel condition known as Crohn’s disease, profiled in my 4-min. video Dietary Treatment of Crohn’s Disease.

Crohn’s disease is an autoimmune condition where your immune system attacks your own intestines. There is no cure; all you can do is try to keep it in remission as long as possible between attacks. Sufferers are often put in anti-inflammatory and immunosuppressive drugs and may find themselves in and out of the hospital getting segments of their intestines surgically removed. Since it’s the intestine itself that’s inflamed, it would seem a good condition to test out the anti-inflammatory power of plant-based diets. We’ve known that meat, cheese, fish, and animal protein in general has been found to increase risk of developing inflammatory bowel disease but what about plants to to not just prevent, but treat it?

Japanese researchers took a group of Crohn’s patients in remission, either because they just came out of surgery or because they were able to beat it back with steroids. And for two years asked half of them to eat a semi-vegetarian diet, meaning in this case vegetarian except for half a serving of fish a week, and half a serving of other meat once every two weeks, so less than one serving of meat per week. Now this wasn’t a prison study or anything, these were free-living adults, so the results are not what necessarily happens when Crohn’s sufferers actually go on a plant-based diet, but what happens when people they are just told to eat a more plant based diet and how much they comply is up to them, which makes the results even more astounding.

You can see the graph in the video, but basically 200 days into the study all of the patients told to eat more of a plant-based diet were still in remission, but about 20% of the group not told to eat anything different relapsed. After a year 100% of the semi-veg group still symptom free, but the disease re-emerged in half of the standard diet group. And at the end of two years, 92% of the patients told to eat a more plant-based diet remained without disease, whereas the majority of those not given that advise relapsed back in the cycles of drugs, hospitalizations and surgery.

And that horrible relapse rate is typical on typical diets. Most Crohn’s sufferers relapse within a a year or two–unless, it seems, they start eating healthier. Remission rate, meaning disease-free status, with the semi-vegetarian diet was 100% at 1 year and 92% at 2 years. To the best of the researcher’s knowledge this is the best result in relapse prevention ever reported.

Inflammatory bowel disease risk has been tied to arachidonic acid, which may partially explain the animal protein connection given the levels in chicken and eggs. The anti-inflammatory nature of plant foods may also explain why those eating plant-based diets have less diabetes (Preventing Macular Degeneration With Diet), fewer allergies (Preventing Allergies in Adulthood), less heart disease (China Study on Sudden Cardiac Death), better moods (Improving Mood Through Diet), and fewer chronic diseases in general (Say No to Drugs by Saying Yes to More Plants).

-Michael Greger, M.D.

Image credit: Dylan Luder / Flickr

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Dr. Michael Greger

About Michael Greger M.D.

Michael Greger, M.D., is a physician, author, and internationally recognized professional speaker on a number of important public health issues. Dr. Greger has lectured at the Conference on World Affairs, the National Institutes of Health, and the International Bird Flu Summit, testified before Congress, appeared on The Dr. Oz Show and The Colbert Report, and was invited as an expert witness in defense of Oprah Winfrey at the infamous "meat defamation" trial. Currently Dr. Greger proudly serves as the Director of Public Health and Animal Agriculture at the Humane Society of the United States.

View all videos by Michael Greger M.D.

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  • Linda

    I put my severe Crohn’s disease into remission by following a vegan, high-nutrient diet.  Not only did my symptoms disappear; four of the five blood markers (IBD serology panel) normalized as well!  My gastroenterologist had told me that those blood markers are regularly tested to see whether various medications are effectively treating a person’s IBD; he said it was pointless to test when ‘just’ changing diet, because it would not make a difference.  It feels wonderful to prove him wrong!  I have been in remission for two years now.

    • Thea

       Linda:  Thank you so much for sharing your story. That’s so inspiring!  Congratulations on taking your health into your own hands.

    • stacy

      Linda, I’m SO happy for u!  Im struggling immensely with Crohn’s/colitits.  May I ask u to post a typical day’s food log?  I’d love to see exactly what u are eating, for it may help me out in terms of healing my own IBD.

      Are u taking any supplements?  If so, which?

      How is your digestion with certain foods?  Do u avoid any in particular or have any that u just have major difficulty digesting?

      Thanks for the help!  I pray things continue to go so well!

  • http://poxacuatl.wordpress.com/ Strix

    Gee, Chrohn’s sounds like a terrible disease :(. How wonderful there is a way to treat it through diet.
    We’ve just gone so extreme in our ways that the simple act of eating is something we have to re-learn. We’re a suicidal bunch!

    I think it’s interesting that foods have different effects based on even the most simple processing, such as drying as with the garlic.

  • Thea

    I love this post, Dr. Greger.  You did such a great job of explaining this story.  These blog posts are very important support for the videos.  The videos are great.  But the way they get put together with the little blog posts makes it all incredibly awesome.

  • Francinemaas

    I got rid of my Crohns completely following a raw vegan diet. Literally no symptoms and no medication anymore. I used to be on 30g prednisolone a day and it was making me miserable.

  • LKSkinner

    You mention arachidonic acid in your article as being implicated in IBD, an inflammatory condition. Arachidonic acid is present in peanuts, does this mean we should avoid eating peanuts and peanut butter?

    Thanks so much for all your amazing videos and blog entries!
    Shanah Tovah!

    • Toxins

      Arachadonic acid is processed down from omega 6. Large amounts of pre formed arachadonic acid is found in eggs and chicken. Similarly, flax contains omega 3 which processes down to DHA and EPA. Preformed DHA and EPA can be found in algae oil supplements (although not necessary).

      So the point is we should try to consume the right amount of omega 3 and omega 6. An adequate ration of omega 6 to omega 3 is 4:1.This ratio is an overall ratio for a day. Now peanuts have a ratio of 4400:1 and almonds have a ratio of 1800:1. So we should limit the amounts of these nuts we consume. Omega 3 and omega 6 share the same enzymes for processing and the enzymes go where the higher concentration is. So if you consume too much omega 6, the omega 3 will be left out and you end up with unprocessed omega 3, which is not good. So peanuts do not contain arachadonic acid, but the high omega 6 content can create it in your body.

      The nuts/seeds with the best ratios are flax and chia seeds as well as walnuts.

      • LKSkinner

        Hi Toxins,
        Thanks so much for the explanation.
        I love peanut butter but this is very good incentive to stay out of the stuff.
        I’ll stick with the flaxseed, chia seed and walnuts.

      • LKSkinner

         Hi Toxins,
        Thanks for the great explanation.
        I guess I’ll cut out the PB and stick with the chia seed and walnuts.

  • signalfire1

    In answer to ‘Linda’ below: Any doctor (especially a GI doc!) who would state that diet couldn’t affect a disease like Crohn’s is an idiot.  Although I’ve been in remission for years, there’s still foods I wouldn’t dare eat because of the residual damage and strictures. I work as a medical transcriptionist and in over half a million dictations, I have yet to have a doctor state that they questioned a patient about their diet, which could be anything from Twinkies every day to OCD dietary choices like one food and one food only…  when a raw vegan diet can cure diabetes in less than a week, any doc who is ignoring the implications of diet just simply isn’t paying attention to new information, or has been taught to scoff at it, which is even worse. 

    My own addition to this discussion is that I find it useful to have a very high intake of Vitamin C; I use supplements, vitamin C powder in my daily water intake, but a high fruit and vegetable diet would probably also help a lot; I just can’t eat that much fiber myself. I think the high levels of C are necessary anti-inflammatories and for healing. 

  • http://www.yestolife.info/ Delisa Renideo

    Sorry this question is off topic, but I don’t see a topic about dangers of flax seeds.  I’ve believed, and taught, that ground flax seeds are a great way to get our Omega 3 fatty acids.
        Today I received an email questioning that. Apparently, Wayne Coates, co-author of a book entitled “Chia” is saying that flax contains toxins and shouldn’t be consumed unless it has been detoxified, a process that requires solvents. Another source, U. of Maryland Medical Cetner, says “do not eat raw or unripe flax seeds — they may be poisonous.”
        I’ve never heard anything bad about flax seeds before, and I figured if there were any studies out there with this information, the person to ask is Dr. Michael Gregor!

    Thanks so much for all your research, and for sharing it with us!

    Delisa Renideo

    • Toxins

      Many plants contain naturally occurring toxins and while it is true that
      flaxseeds contain tiny amounts of cyanide-containing substances, this
      has not been shown to be a problem. The concern arises from the
      writings in a popular book or two and has not been confirmed in any
      published studies that I know of.

      If you think it is a concern, heating the flaxseeds has been shown to eliminate any detectable amounts of this chemical

      So, while it may be theoretically possible that eating huge amounts
      of raw or unprocessed flaxseeds or flaxseed meal could potentially pose a
      problem, this massive load of flax seed is not probable is normal consumption levels.

  • stacy

    Hey Linda!

    I dont have the money to join his site….$150 is a huge committment. Did he give u personal advice and what did he say?

    What probiotics were u on and are u still on them? Does he recommend fermented foods and if so, which?

    How long have u been healing ur gut?

    Does he recommend digestive enzymes? and do u take them?

    What do u mean by “Some foods are not food for me, because they are food for my disease. I do not eat foods which feed disease; I only eat foods which feed health and life!”?

    How long did it take u to be able to tolerate sweet potatoes? I cannot eat them either….and all grains bother me, except for brown rice tortillas, lol. Are u able to handle greens and veggies? Those are tough on me too. Right now, I do a lot of green smoothies and am trying to incorporate a raw/vegan protein powder at the end of the day to fix my low protein/albumin levels.

    How many are on the site? How active are the doctors in answering questions?

    Thanks for the help!

    • http://www.facebook.com/lauren.r.ard Lauren Rae Layton Ard

      Stacy, I read his books at my local library for FREE! He’s got very similar dietary recommendations to Dr. Gregor here.

      • stacy

        I have all his books too, but I am not able to digest legumes, starches, nuts/seeds and most veggies…thus, my diet is primarily fruit-based. How are u able to digest all these foods with IBD? Do u take digestive enzymes, probiotics…??

        How long did it take ur gut to heal? What specifically did u do?

        What is a daily diet log specifically like for u? See how u structure ur meals would really help me out a lot!

  • http://www.facebook.com/lauren.r.ard Lauren Rae Layton Ard

    Is there a reason my question from yesterday was deleted? 

  • guy

    Will someone help me to find more details about how to find a way to having an outstanding Flaxseed oil vegetable with omega nutrition dishes ?

    i want to create a awesome “more than reasonable” foods to my gust,
    in most circumstances they not much like natural foods to say the record ,
    so please it require your support
    make me persuade  them that health and fitness food can go with the phrase “wonderfully enchanting fulfill diner”

    flax seed benefits 

    • Toxins

      I would keep away from flaxseed oil, or any oil for that matter, as all of these oils lack any vitamins, minerals, fiber and phytonutrients found in the original food. Omega 3 is only one aspect of the health benefits of flaxseed.

  • Alyssa

     I’ve also been symptom free since I changed my diet. I’ve been on a whole foods,gluten-free, and lactose-free diet since June 2010. I also only use honey and maple syrup as sweeteners. This means, no processed foods or foods containing artificial and refined ingredients either. It’s been 2 years and 5 months total that I’ve been on this more wholesome diet. I went med free in May 2011, so it’s been a year and a half that I’ve been without symptoms and without the use of medication. The book that changed my life was Breaking the Vicious Cycle by Elaine Gotschall. Please check it out if you have Crohn’s or other digestive problems.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/heidi.woodruff.92 Heidi Wood

    There is NOTHING in a McDonalds hamburger or smoked oysters that your body “needs”. Read “The Pleasure Trap”. And watch “Earthlings”. vegan is better for you and the planet!

  • Ilana

    What recommendations do you have for someone in Crohn’s who was vegan for several years before getting it? I’m already vegan, but it’s hereditary and my dad had it (and Ashkenazi), so what else can I do? I’ve been in remission for 2 years on Remicade but my doctors don’t want me to go off. Let me know. :-( thanks!

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